Essential Oils

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Selective Binding to Proteins- Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils

A fair number of secondary metabolites have evolved that bind to specific surface proteins or neuroreceptors. This type of specific binding of secondary metabolites is found mostly among plant alkaloids. In the realm of essential oils some sesquiterpenes bind to specific receptors. Secondary plant metabolites with selective activity are generally well understood. Selective activity is found in those secondary metabolites that feature a high degree of structural similarity to (endogenous) mammalian hormones and neurotransmitters (substances found in chemical synapses, the connection between two excitable cells, crucial for transduction of electrical signals. 

In other words, plants have managed to model a secondary metabolites to closely resemble neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine, GABA, and histamine, and hormones like endorphins. This type of secondary metabolite can attach to the same receptors as the endogenous messenger molecules.


In cases like those of heart glycosides, salicylic derivatives from the willow tree, or quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree, selective activity of the respective secondary metabolites has been demonstrated by experimental pharmacology. Consequently these plant producers have been integrated into the arsenal of conventional medicine. In his Diversity of Life, Biologist E. O. Wilson points out that few of us are aware of how much we already depend on wild organisms for Aspirin, the most widely used pharmaceutical in the world, was derived from salicylic acid discovered in meadowsweet (filipendula ulmaria) and later combined with acetic acid to create acetylsalicylic acid, the more effective painkiller. 

In the United States a quarter of all prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies are substances extracted from plants. Another 13 percent come from microorganisms and 3 percent are organism-derived. Yet these materials are only a tiny fraction of the multitude available. Fewer than 3 percent of the flowering plants of the world, about 5'000 of the 220,000 species, have been examined for alkaloids, and then in limited and haphazard fashion.

The anti-cancer potency of the rosy periwinkle was discovered by the merest chance, because the species happened to be widely planted and under investigation for its reputed effectiveness as an antidiuretic. The scientific and folklore record is strewn with additional examples of plants and animals valued in folk medicine but still unaddressed in biochemical research.

The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) a relative of mahogany, is a native of tropical Asia virtually unknown in the developed world. The people of India, according to a recent report of the US national Research Council, treasure the species. "For centuries, millions have clenched their teeth with neem twigs, smeared skin disorders with neem leaf-juice, taken neem tea as a tonic, and placed neem leaves in their beds, book, grain bins, cupboards, and closets to keep away troubling bugs.

The tree has relieved so many different pains, fevers, infections, and other complaints that it has been called the 'village pharmacy'. To those millions in India neem has miraculous powers, and now scientists around the world are beginning to think that they may be right."

One should never dismiss the reports of such powers as superstition or legend. Organisms are superb chemists. In a sense they are collectively better than all the world's chemists at synthesizing organic molecules of practical use. Through millions of generations each kind of plan, animal, and microorganism has experimented with chemical substances to meet its special needs. 

Each species has experienced astronomical numbers of mutations and genetic re-combinations affecting its biochemical machinery. The experimental products thus produced have been tested by the unyielding forces of natural selection, one generation at a time. The special class chemicals in which the species became a wizard is precisely determined by the niche it occupies. 

While their actions are well understood, the similarity between the molecular structures of human hormones and neurotransmitters and the almost picture-perfect imitations produced by plants is still surprising. How is it possible that a plant can produce molecules that are almost mirrors of substances in humans and other mammals? The answer is seldom discussed: metabolism in plants and mammals is very similar and partly even identical.

Proteins, enzymes, and the general biochemical machinery 9the primary metabolism) of all life has a extremely high degree of uniformity. All molecules of life arise from the same ancestral biochemical machinery of prokaryotic cells, identical molecules. Biochemical diversity arises with the products of the secondary metabolism.

Reference: The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy: Kurt Schnaubelt: Ph.D.

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